On Monday, my friend Mike told me to read “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” by Bud Sparhawk in the Jan-Feb 2019 issue of Analog. Three days later I’m still thinking about it. Mike warned me that Rocket Stack Rank (RSR) had not liked it. I read the story and found it moving. I assumed RSR had only given it 3-stars, but when I checked, “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” had just 1-star.
What were the magic ingredients in “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” that made Mike and I resonate with the story but were missed by Rocket Stack Rank? My routine way of selecting the latest short science fiction to read is to check RSR and go after the 5-star stories. This means I wouldn’t have read “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” on my own. I’m grateful to Mike recommended the story because the story worked on me and pushed my emotional buttons.
Several reviewers have dismissed this story as sentimental. Are Mike and I emotional saps who are suckers for stories that make our eyes water? I don’t know about Mike, but I am. Does that make “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” a 5-star story in my heart? Well, not quite.
I don’t want to rate stories, but I do want to promote them. Let’s face it, the short story is a dying art form, but one I admire. To be upfront and honest, I want you to buy science fiction magazines and read more short stories because I want the market to thrive and not go extinct. But what’s the best way to do this? Rocket Stack Rank has its system which I use and recommend, but it’s not perfect. If you learn their system I believe it’s reliable for rating stories by its standards.
However, if you don’t normally read science fiction short stories, you won’t become a fan if you try a couple and don’t like them. It helps to have a pusher to get you hooked. There are all kinds of stories for all kinds of readers. That makes it hard for us story pushers to get people to read a particular story.
If I review a story I have to carefully point out what works for me in a way that is understandable to you. If we can’t find a common wavelength to communicate on, there’s no reason for you to try the stories I push, or even read what I write.
So why exactly did I like “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” by Bud Sparhawk?
- The story is about an old man, David, losing his memory. I’m an old guy worried about losing my memory.
- The old guy is a science fiction writer who reads his own stories having forgotten he wrote them. I can already rewatch a Perry Mason I saw two months ago and not remember the plot.
- Sparhawk proposed a gadget he calls a memory-aid (think hearing aid) that helps with short-term and long-term memory. Great idea for SF short story.
- The story conflict deals with the old man’s children, Bill and Gwen, trying to decide if they should spend their own savings for a memory-aid for their aging father. Tough call.
- The story makes me wonder what would I do in the same situation, either for an older person or for myself.
- The story makes me fantasize how I would have told the same story differently.
Sparhawk’s story moved me, but I thought it had problems. Storytelling problems often make me stop reading. But sometimes they make me obsess over the story – like now. Often I like the idea but not the execution. I actually love stories I want to rewrite using my own personal insights because I believe the writer came up with a wonderful situation.
The main flaw of “The Fading Pages of a Short Story,” which could have been an editor’s tweaking, is making David 98. Who would consider spending the price of a house to get a memory-aid for a 98-year-old man? If he had been 68, then the decision would have been realistic and heartwrenching. It would have also fixed some secondary problems. If David is 98, Bill and Gwen should be in their 60s or 70s. They should be old enough to have their own memory problems. But in the story, Gwen still has kids at home. Clues suggest the story takes place in the 2030s, and David began writing at the beginning of the century, which would make him around 70. That doesn’t work. I can’t but wonder if 98 was a printing mistake.
But there were other little problems that made me pause my reading and think. David says he relies on speed-dialing. That’s an archaic phrase now and will be even more so in the 2030s. You just “call” people with smartphones, but we do rely on them to remember phone numbers. But this problem is an interesting writing problem to contemplate. I still call the refrigerator an “icebox” because that’s what my dad called it, and that was an old fashioned term when he learned it in the 1920s and 1930s. So an old man in the 2030s might still use the phrase “speed dial.” In other words, sometimes what I think of as flaws in the stories might be features.
There were a number of other aspects to the story that made me pause too, but they aren’t really important to why the story moved me. Being moved is the key ingredient. If I had not read the Rocket Stack Rank review I would never have thought about the flaws in this story. I would have finished it with a wonderful sense of existential suffering. A rewarding kind of pain that comes from good stories. Faulker said great fiction is about the heart in conflict with itself.
“The Fading Pages of a Short Story” is a slight story that made me feel something deeply in myself. That’s the magic ingredient to any short story. As someone who wants to write short stories, Sparhawk’s story gave me a lot to think about. But mostly, it made me fear for the future, tear up, and ache. My memories are slipping away and I know what that means, so I identified with David and I felt for him. When I was younger, this story would have meant nothing to me.
On The Astounding Analog Companion, Bud Sparhawk writes “The Bane and Pleasure of Writing” where he mentions having PSS (premature-submission-syndrome). I believe “The Fading Pages of a Short Story” would have gotten more stars with Rocket Stack Rank if he had baked it in the oven longer. Below that linked essay is a Q&A with Sparhawk where he talks about writing “The Fading Pages of a Short Story.” And below that is a bit of biography with his photo. Bud Sparhawk is 81, so he knows something about getting old. He’s also been a regular contributor to Analog for decades.
James Wallace Harris, February 20, 2019